River Wissey Lovell Fuller


July 2005

Another extract from Albert Jack's delightful book

To Blackmail somebody is to demand money by threats, usually to expose secrets. This word, or phrase, originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1600's. The 'mail' in blackmail is the old Scottish word for rent, usually spelled either 'maill' or 'male', which in turn evolved from the old Norse word 'mal' meaning agreement or contract. In those days tenants paid their rent in silver coins which used to be known as 'white money' but in the 1600's the Highland clan chiefs began a protection racket, threatening farmers and traders with violence if they didn't pay to be protected from other clans. This informal tax, or additional rent, soon became known as 'black money' or 'black rent', being the opposite of white and so 'blackmail' became part of the language as a word to describe the practice of obtaining money by threat of violence. During the 1900's the art of demanding money not to divulge somebody's secrets was established and the use of the word 'blackmail' was extended to include this.

Blighty is an affectionate old-fashioned term for Britain. This developed during the British Empire campaign in India and is taken from the Hindi word 'Bilayti', meaning foreigner. Empire soldiers used the term to refer to their homeland and the expression was in regular use by the time of the First World War by soldiers who talked of Britain.

Getting down to Brass Tacks means that early discussions are complete and we now need to get to the heart of the matter, the details. Some suggestions point to the origin of this phrase being the American drapery stores, where brass-headed tacks were nailed into the counter and used for measuring out the fabric. The idea being that, once the customer had taken time to chose their material, putting it to the 'brass tacks' meant actually getting down to the sale. Another explanation is that the phrase stems from the brass tacks found in furniture, which can only be seen when the item is taken apart for restoration. For the real origin we need look no further than our own good old cockney rhyming slang, in which 'facts' are dubbed 'brass tacks'.

Cockney rhyming slang is responsible for many phrases, and A load of old cobblers is another of them. These days 'cobblers' means something said is unbelievable or evident nonsense. It is an extension of a 'load of balls', a phrase widely used for centuries in England. A cobblers' awl is a tool used for making lace holes in shoes or boats. In cockney rhyming slang 'balls' became 'cobblers awls' or cobblers In the Queen's English it means you are talking codswallop.

Taken from Red Herrings & White Elephants by Albert Jack

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